Power vs Liberty - A Delicate Balance

Government needs some power, but too much destroys liberty.

"Anarchy" is defined as a state of society without government or law.  There was a period of anarchy all over Europe after the Roman empire collapsed around 476 AD.  Although smallish local gangs were able to rule bits of territory here and there, it took centuries for the toughest, biggest gangs to take over enough adjacent gangs to be thought of as nations once again.  Germany didn't become a united nation until the time of Frederick the Great in the late 1700's, more than 1,000 years after the collapse of Rome.

There's enough anarchy abroad in various parts of the world today that most Americans are well aware of the need for some sort of government which has enough power to enforce laws.  Those of us who've seen anarchy close up know that man cannot live without law.

Contrary to what you might hear partisan reporters say, no true conservative wants there to be no government at all; even a tyranny is preferable to a complete absence of government.  The vast majority of Russians were far, far better off under Stalin than most Somalians are today.

Liberty Versus Law - A Tricky Balance

Unfortunately, every law which is enforced by government or by any other authority such as teachers or parents comes at the expense of individual liberty.  A parental command to clean a room comes at the expense of the child's preference to live in a pigsty.  If the government commands all drivers to drive on the right side of the road, this denies those who disagree the liberty to drive on the left.

By giving up this small amount of personal liberty, or course, we all collectively gain something worth having: a much lower chance of being smashed into head-on.  Although there are occasional exceptions, most people realize that we're all better off if everyone drives on the right whether they want to or not.

Traffic rules are relatively straightforward except for such contentious matters as helmets for motorcyclists, but in more subtle areas, it's always a dicey matter to find the correct balance between individual liberty and the rule of law.  Thomas Jefferson said, "That government is best that governs least," by which he meant that government should minimize its interference in individual affairs.

Responsibility Versus Welfare - Another Tricky Balance

There's another conflict which affects the liberty-versus-law argument, and that's the question of whether individuals should look out for themselves or whether society should take care of them.  Liberty is maximized if each person, family, or small village looks out for itself, but liberty then includes freedom to starve to death if anything goes seriously wrong with the local agricultural system.

When Jefferson praised government which governed least, he was not thinking in terms of government having much if any responsibility for taking care of people; that was up to them or to their families.  If the government assumes responsibility for taking care of individuals, liberty is lost by the very nature of bureaucracy - government employees enforce arbitrary rules on people when taking care of them.

We see this in the fine print in the Obamacare legislation.  In return for health care, we've given the government the authority to control which treatments we can receive, the authority to see our medical records at any time, and the authority to force us to buy health insurance whether we want it or not.  These are only a few of the liberties we've lost in return for "free" health care which we pay for either through taxes or through inflation.

Rights Versus Responsibilities

Then there's the balance between individual rights, such as freedom of speech, and individual responsibility such as paying taxes and following the law.  Tyrannical governments don't offer freedom of speech and expect not only exact obedience to any and all laws but also instant obedience to any and all commands given by the ruler or by his designates.

Sun Tzu lost no stature when he chopped off the heads of the Emperor's favorite concubines when they failed to persuade their platoons to obey his commands.  The Chinese had had enough experience with anarchy between the times one government collapsed and the next government managed to take over that disobedience to authority was frowned upon, no matter how arbitrary or excessive it was.  It was perfectly proper for Sun Tzu to decapitate the disobedient; it also reminded the other concubines that they were expected to do as they were told.

In a way, the Chinese concubines were living in the ultimate of totalitarian states: they had no rights whatsoever and had to comply with any arbitrary responsibility placed upon them.

The concept of women having essentially no rights and nothing but responsibilities goes back a long way.  Jewish wisdom literature records the advice King Lemuel's mother gave him.  After telling him all he needed to know to run the kingdom and thereby inventing management science some years ahead of Peter Drucker, Mrs. Lemuel told her son what to look for in a wife:

The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, and he hath no lack of gain.  Proverbs 31:11

The Hebrew word translated "husband" is "ba-al," which was the name of a local Philistine deity.  It's translated "husband" here only by courtesy, it could equally well be translated as "lord" as in "lord and master," or as "owner."

Thus, the concept of women having responsibilities to obey their husbands and no independent rights goes thousands of years back into the past.  2,600 years ago, Sun Tzu had a double reason to chop off the heads of the disobedient concubines - they'd not only disobeyed their Emperor, they'd disobeyed their husband.

Question Authority

The modern era of rumbustious Americans trashing their government started in the late 1960's as college students became more and more concerned that they might have to go fight in the Vietnam war.  The possibility of being drafted into the army was as repugnant to them as paying the King's tax on tea had been to the Bostonians of 1776.

As liberals have gained control of the commanding heights of the mainstream media and most colleges, they approve of questioning conservative authorities up to and including shouting them down when they visit campuses to deliver speeches, but they aren't particularly interested in hearing conservatives question their policies in return.  Whenever "Tea Party" activists gather, the media accuse them of racism, bigotry, insensitivity, and a host of other sins against the ruling liberal order.

As with all things, one's approval of dissent depends on what the dissidents are saying.  As more and more conservatives realize that their liberties are under threat from Mr. Obama's policies, we'll probably see more and more dissent similar to the recent Arizona law which makes it easier for state agencies to deport illegals.

The Three Axes of Government

These, then, are the three axes which define the basic characteristics of any government:

  1. Liberty versus law - the more laws the government enforces, the less room is left for individual liberty.
  2. Individual responsibility versus welfare - the more the government takes responsibility for taking care of individual citizens, the more rules bureaucrats write which control what people may and may not do.
  3. Rights versus duty - the more citizens assert their rights instead of carrying out their duties, the more laws government has to write to keep society functioning, and thus the less liberty there will be.

America started out emphasizing individual liberty and responsibility over government control.  The idea was that although everyone had the right to pursue happiness, you had to catch it yourself.

In recent decades, we've been drifting towards the idea that government should take more and more responsibility for ensuring that everyone actually achieves happiness.  This doesn't work out well because government's idea of happiness doesn't fit everyone.

America started out as a nation dedicated to duty.  Fathers had a duty to take care of their families, teachers had a duty to teach their students and so on.  The song "America the Beautiful" has a verse which goes:

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife
Who more than self their country loved
And duty more than life.

Can you imagine President Obama singing that song and meaning it?  Nancy Pelosi?  Barney Frank?  John McCain, for all his faults, at least lived the very meaning of those words many years ago.

Lately, self-gratification has overtaken duty as our core idea; doing your duty seems to have become a quaint concept which is dying out.  Unfortunately, certain jobs have to be done for society to function.  If people don't carry out these duties voluntarily, government tends to try to coerce them.

The original concept of the American government attempting to maximize individual liberty implied a vigorous right of self-expression.  For all the modern media criticizing "partisanship" as our politicians disagree, what we're seeing and hearing is as nothing compared to some of the early disagreements between senators and congresspersons - the last fist-fight on the Senate floor was quite some time ago.  Truly vigorous political discourse seems to be dying out.

Liberals don't really believe in freedom of speech except for themselves.  As they've gained more and more power, they're doing their very best to suppress any voices which disagree with them.  It will be interesting to see whether our ruling liberals remain content with shredding their opponents' reputations or escalate to chopping heads as Sun Tzu did.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
another diatribe against "liberals", although the usual term "statist" is more applicable, but then the author might be suggesting the Republicans are as guilty of failure to protect our lives, liberty 7 property, and we must not dare offend those paragons of moral uprighteousness, so the Truth be damned from the outset.
One wonders what the author's work under another name would be like? Does he support those "Progressive" icons with the same vigor he attacks them? he certainly maintains little if any consistency regarding human life and its necessary freedom, nor does he advo cate the inherent evils from the mentality that has affected this decade of fiscal idiocy, military arrogance, and our eroded civil associations & business concerns being private and personal affairs, which the past administration certainly demonstrated to be a profound insanity.
May 7, 2010 6:28 PM
irvn - Huh? You make little sense.
May 8, 2010 9:25 PM

This was an excellent article. It was a very helpful article for my research essay on liberty versus authority. Thank you (and yes, I cited you).

September 7, 2015 6:11 PM
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